‘Imbeciles’ and ‘Illiberal Reformers’

David Oshinsky in The New York Times:

BookFew American jurists are as revered as Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. A United States Supreme Court justice for close to 30 years, Holmes wrote seminal opinions that were clear and clever and elegantly phrased. It was Holmes who defined the limits of free speech in 1919 by noting that the law did not protect someone “falsely shouting fire in a theater.” And it was Holmes who thoughtfully amended those words a decade later by writing that nothing in the Constitution was more sacred than “the principle of free thought — not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.” By most accounts, Holmes, an upper-crust Bostonian, served the nobler instincts of America’s privileged classes. That is why his reckless majority opinion supporting forced sterilization in a 1927 case remains an enigma. Was it an isolated misstep or something more: an indictment of Justice Holmes and the Progressive movement he appeared to embrace? America in the early 20th century was awash in reform. As giant corporations took root, so too did calls to check their power. Laws were passed setting maximum hours and minimum ­wages, limiting child labor, preserving natural resources and breaking up the “trusts” that were said to be destroying fair competition. Not all of these laws worked out as planned, and some were eviscerated in the courts. But a new force had been unleashed, aiming to serve the greater good not by destroying big business but by curbing its abuses. Progressivism was always more than a single cause, however. Attracting reformers of all stripes, it aimed to fix the ills of society through increased government action — the “administrative state.” Progressives pushed measures ranging from immigration restriction to eugenics in a grotesque attempt to protect the nation’s gene pool by keeping the “lesser classes” from reproducing. If one part of progressivism emphasized fairness and compassion, the other reeked of bigotry and coercion.

“Imbeciles,” by Adam Cohen, the author of “Nothing to Fear: FDR’s Inner Circle and the Hundred Days That Created Modern America,” examines one of the darkest chapters of progressive reform: the case of Buck v. Bell. It’s the story of an assault upon thousands of defenseless people seen through the lens of a young woman, Carrie Buck, locked away in a Virginia state asylum. In meticulously tracing her ordeal, Cohen provides a superb history of eugenics in America, from its beginnings as an offshoot of social Darwinism — ­human survival of the fittest — to its rise as a popular movement, advocating the state-sponsored sterilization of “feeble­minded, insane, epileptic, inebriate, criminalistic and other degenerate persons.” According to the New York attorney Madison Grant, whose immensely influential 1916 tract, “The Passing of the Great Race,” became standard reading for eugenicists — Hitler himself is said to have called it “my bible” — about 10 percent of Americans produced unworthy offspring and had to be stopped.

More here.